A guy in his late twenties happens upon a 14-year-old boy on Chatroulette, and the two strike up a conversation. As it ends, the older of the two offers his Skype username. Creeped out yet? And if so, are you making premature assumptions about what it means for two strangers -- one an adult and one a teen -- to chat online?
That question's at the heart of "Windscreenwiperman," a new short film by London-based director Sam Baron that aims to explore, through one small story, the stigma around online friendships and our global addiction to social media.
After successfully meeting its £5,000 (roughly $7,500) Kickstarter goal last fall, the 25-minute film came out on Vimeo and Short of the Week on Tuesday, and it's already evoked strong reactions in early screenings, says Baron, who co-wrote the script with Raphael von Blumenthal, also the actor who plays the lead adult role.
(Spoiler alert: The below section of the story contains an interview with the film's director, who reveals the thinking behind "Windscreenwiperman," as well as a major plot point. If you don't want to know these before watching the film, please scroll to the video at the bottom of this post. Also, be warned that part of this film takes place on Chatroulette, where some people famously prefer to communicate with their NSFW naked lower extremities.)
After their initial Chatroulette encounter, Simon, the adult, and Michael, the teen, continue to chat online, and in the film's denouement, meet in person, though nothing untoward happens, at least not overtly.
"Some people are pleasantly surprised when the friendship turns out to be sweet and innocent, and end up rethinking their own preconceptions about online friendships," Baron, a recent recipient of an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Academy Nicholl Fellowship in screenwriting, tells Crave. "Some people find the ending unsettling, because although this particular friendship turned out to be fine, there's no clear lesson to be learned -- another online friendship with a teenage boy could have turned out far worse. Some people think the friendship was acceptable online, but that he never should have met the boy in real life."
It's definitely the kind of film that should get viewers thinking, and talking. I, for example, wondered why Simon, who holds a steady job as a product tester and seems to enjoy a happy relationship with his girlfriend, spends any time at all talking to the boy, and seems so energized when doing so. It's not like the two have scintillating conversations about the state of the millennial generationor a shared love of video games. Michael, the teen, eschews full sentences for statements like "wot u up2" and likes to append most of his thoughts with an "lol".
There are, however, moments of human connection. Michael, played by Joe Hurst, reveals that his father isn't part of his life, and talks about a girl he'd like to ask out. Simon offers encouragement and dating advice. Baron says he and actor von Blumenthal talked extensively about Simon's possible motivations for chatting with the boy -- among them curiosity. (Simon fires up Chatroulette after scrolling through an article on Facebook titled "5 Reasons Why Chatroulette Is Addictive, and Worth a Try.") And loneliness.
"I don't think the character would describe himself as 'lonely,' just as many people who scroll endlessly through Facebook every day also wouldn't," Baron says. "But I think there's a subtle, pervasive loneliness which is very real in many big cities around the world, which keeps people in their little boxes and stops them [from] talking to their neighbors."
Also at play, Baron maintains, are Simon's burgeoning paternal instincts, though those may not immediately be apparent to viewers who ascribe his behavior to darker intentions.
"Raphael and I are both in our late 20s, and still feel very connected to who we were as teenagers," Baron says. "We both often wish we could give our teenage selves advice about life, school, girls, and so on -- or wish that someone had given us that advice back then."
But what about where and how such advice gets relayed? Is it any weirder for an adult to chat with a teenage stranger online than on a park bench or a soccer field? Simon's girlfriend in the film, played by Rebecca Herod, thinks so.
"Is it normal for a grown man to be making friends with kids over the Internet?" she asks when her boyfriend tells her about his young chatmate. "You didn't just randomly meet him at a bus stop. You deliberately went online and you found this boy."
Uber-creepy? Mildly creepy? Not creepy at all? Have a look at the film below and then share your thoughts in the comments. "With all the reactions, I've been pleased by how keen people are to debate it afterwards," Baron says, "and how the key moral questions seem to stay with people."